Nfld. & Labrador

How one public health advocate is overcoming vaccine hesitancy in her community

Eemaan Thind is determined to tackle COVID-19 vaccine skepticism in a community she knows has had good reason to be wary of medicine.

Eemaan Thind is determined to tackle skepticism in a community she knows has good reason to be doubtful

Eemaan Thind has a passion for public health, including working with people in her community who may have questions about COVID-19 vaccines. (Eemaan Thind/LinkedIn)

Eemaan Thind is passionate about public health. She is also determined to tackle COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in a community she knows has had good reason to be skeptical of medicine.

Thind, who has a master's degree in public health, says the key is to educate people in a culturally relevant way.

This weekend, Thind is working alongside the NL Sikh Society on an information session in which attendees can ask their questions and voice their concerns about COVID-19 vaccines in both Punjabi and Hindi.

"I'd been volunteering with COVID-19 Resources Canada, and then I realized that I should contact my local community and see if there is a need to do the same for the gurdwara community," said Thind, who attended services at the gurdwara — a Sikh place of worship — in St. John's during her undergraduate studies at Memorial University.

Throughout the pandemic, she's maintained her connection to the community through the Sunday Zoom service provided by the temple.

Thind contacted community leaders and arranged to address vaccine concerns directly, fielding questions in both Punjabi and Hindi.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is prepared in a vaccination clinic at the Palais des Congres, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Montreal, Quebec, Canada March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov (Andrej Ivanov/Reuters)

Thind says there is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine circulating online and through social media and messaging apps. She says she's heard concerns about the vaccine's safety, whether it was rushed through production, and potential side effects.

By reaching these communities directly and trying to educate them in a culturally relevant way, she's trying to address their specific needs. In this case, the community asked for a presentation, followed by a question period in their own languages.

"It's not just having someone whom they trust to get the information from, as well as the language; it's also the place that the session is taking place," Thind said. "It's taking place during the gurdwara Sunday worship, so that's also a place which the community trusts."

Culturally relevant engagement

Thind said vaccine skepticism among non-white communities has developed thanks to the historical precedent of various unethical medical studies and practices, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study — in which African-American men with syphilis were promised health care but were instead given placebos and other ineffective treatment — iand fake vaccination programs in Pakistan that targeted marginalized or vulnerable groups.

The skepticism, Thind said, is rooted in a history of violence against these communities of colour.

"A lot of people of colour — Indigenous people, Black people — they have faced a lot of historical medical traumas," said Thind. "There have been clinical trials that have been conducted across the world where people have been unethically enrolled in."

While some of these historical instances are widely known, many of the experiences of these communities that have led to vaccine skepticism might not be understood by white health-care workers, she said.

"I think that their hesitancy or their mistrust, on face, is justified," she said.

"It's not just something that's [only] historical; people of colour, especially Black people, when they go to hospitals, a lot of times they tend to get neglected."

Ultimately, Thind said, health-care providers need to address the concerns these communities have about vaccine safety.

"I think that the first step is to definitely acknowledge people of colour's legitimate concerns about the vaccines being safe or not, because it's a very real concern that they have," said Thind.

"Beyond that, it's about discussing their concern in a safe space, especially by a provider with whom the person might feel most comfortable."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Conor McCann is a freelance writer and journalist from St. John's.

With files from The St. John's Morning Show